The Saints will come into Carolina to face the 0-1 Panthers as both teams will try to avoid the dreaded 0-2 start. In fact, the Panthers may be even more desperate for a win because a loss would already signal their second divisional loss after they dropped their opener in Tampa to the Bucs. Being 0-2 is bad enough, but suffering both losses to direct competition for a divisonal crown would hurt their season dramatically. For the Saints, a rebound coming off such a dreadful showing at home is a must, with added importance going against a divisional opponent. The Saints swept the Panthers last season, but the game in Carolina ended 30-27 and came down to the end. Both teams are of course very familiar with each other and it will be less about surprises (like the Redskins game, perhaps) and more about who executes better. Here is my scouting report on the Panthers:
Cam Newton is still the quarterback and he certainly had a lot of buzz going on about him heading into the season. His day against the Bucs last Sunday wasn’t a very good one, though, so he’s looking to rebound much like Brees. Newton is a bigger threat to run than RGIII was last week not because he’s more capable, but because he’s more willing. While he’s not as fast, he’s definitely stronger and more physical. From a passing standpoint, I have not seen the pinpoint accuracy on short passes from Newton that I saw from RGIII last week, but he’s got a stronger arm. So while there’s been a lot of comparisons and both are extraordinary athletes, I don’t think they are exact replicas in style. While they both have elite escapability in the pocket, I think the notion we’ve heard this week that playing RGIII is good preparation for Cam Newton is slightly misguided. Still, with a poor pass rush and a quarterback that can extend the play, it will once again put pressure on the Saints’ depleted cornerbacks to cover the Panther receivers that much longer. Not a good thing. The Panthers’ O-line is a bit suspect, especially in the interior. Left tackle Jordan Gross and center Ryan Kalil are solid, but their guards and right tackle Byron Bell are mediocre. It’s another good matchup for Brodrick Bunkley, Sedrick Ellis and Cam Jordan. The Panthers still have DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Steve Smith as their key playmakers on offense – guys that have hurt the Saints over the years that we are all too familiar with. They are aging and I question if those guys are in their prime anymore, but it represents an upgrade over the playmakers the Saints faced last week that burned them for 40 points, so beware. Beyond that they have Greg Olsen, a scary matchup for Roman Harper in coverage, Brandon LaFell of LSU who looked good last week, and Mike Tolbert as a power runner from the Chargers. It’s an aging offense around Cam Newton but a capable one. Hopefully they can struggle as much as last week but if the Saints’ defense doesn’t improve it could get ugly. The one positive we saw from the Saints last week in my opinion was their run defense, and that’s what makes the Panthers’ offense go, so if you are looking for silver lining it is there. Williams had 6 carries for -1 yards last week and the team rushed 13 times for 10 yards. The Saints will be looking to make the Panthers as one dimensional as the Bucs did.
The Panthers return their star middle linebacker Jon Beason who was out for all of last season. He’s a tackling machine and a dangerous playmaker that needs to be accounted for at all times. Chris Gamble is arguably their top defensive back and he lives up to his last name. Like DeAngelo Hall last week, Gamble will make a huge play and then turn around and take an unecessary risk to cost his team. If Drew Brees is on he can expose him. Their defensive line is led by Charles Johnson, a scary and capable up and coming pass rusher that the Saints’ offensive line will have to work hard to contain. If the Saints become as one dimensional as they were last week, Johnson could have a field day. This is a defense you can run on, no doubt about it, as the Bucs finished with 130 yards on 36 carries with a much less capable group of runners. The key for the Saints is to keep Charles Johnson respecting the run threat by being effective on the ground and being committed to the run, and that will open up the passing game where the Panthers’ defensive backs aren’t elite by any means.
Justin Medlock, formerly of UCLA, is the kicker for the Panthers. He was drafted by the Chiefs in the 5th round in 2007 and was a disaster for 2 years in the NFL. After getting cut by four NFL teams without getting much of a chance, Medlock was exiled to Canada. He did transform his career last year by going 49 of 55 on kicks with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. That landed him a job back in the NFL, but Medlock has always been extremely inconsistent even during his tenure in Canada prior to last year. In fact, the Panthers are his 10th team in 5 years. It was a bit of a surprise the Panthers let former Saint Olindo Mare go as he was solid last year, and Medlock represents a bit of an enigma. He wasn’t tested last week and I’m hopeful he could choke in a pressure situation. Their punter Brad Nortman is a rookie 6th round pick out of Wisconsin and he was fairly effective in the first game of the season, giving up no return yardage on 5 punts (39.8 yard average, 2 kicks inside 20, no touchbacks). Their returner, rookie Joe Adams, is explosive but also lacks experience. He had ball security issues in preseason which seems to be the standard for young promising explosive returners around the league. So the Panthers are very young and inexperienced on special teams with potential and this is a big advantage for the Saints. We saw the Saints win that phase of the game last week (blocked punt for a TD, good kick coverage, good returns) and this is a mismatch on paper the Saints can exploit again this week.